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Helen Gaynor

An established director of Australian television and documentaries, Helen Gaynor has been regularly directing episodes of Neighbours since the late 1980s. She took some time from behind the lens to give us an insight into the role a director plays in the making of Neighbours, and reflect on her time with the series...

Can you give us a little background on your career?
When I finished school I didn't quite know what to do with myself so I applied for every course under the sun. I'd always loved art, politics and photography so the combination led to film and applying to the Swinburne Film & TV School (now VCA). This led to working at Crawford Productions in various crew roles during the heyday of shows like Skyways, Cop Shop, The Sullivans and Carson's Law. Following that I trained as a director with ABC TV and have been directing ever since, combining TV drama direction with documentary.

When did you first start on Neighbours? Had you watched the series before?
I first directed Neighbours around 1988. My younger brothers and sisters were all devotees - during the Kylie/Jason days - so I had glimpsed a few episodes and was certainly aware of its impact.

Can you explain how a typical directing assignment on Neighbours works?
Directors on Neighbours work on a one-month schedule. During that month, we prep, shoot and edit five episodes, which are shot concurrently. The pace is very fast and the days long, but the work is fun and challenging. Sometimes you move onto another TV drama after that month, or you may turn around and do it all again on Neighbours for a few months.

Does much need changing on the day of recording compared to what's planned in advance in director's notes?
Not much needs to change once you get on set - all those problems should have been sorted out in the script meetings and production meetings. The scripts have been worked on a lot before they even get to the director and they are pretty spot on when they reach me. Once you're on set with all the cast and crew standing around, it's not the time to start changing scripts!!

How do extras and incidental objects affect the main action?
Extras can have a great effect on a scene - it's a tough role because they don't have scripted lines of dialogue or even directions, but you really need them to be able to act - everyone has seen an extra who clearly doesn't quite know what they are doing - as a viewer all you can do is look at them rather than the main cast. There are some great extras on the show who do it regularly and make life easy for me. It's hard work when there are a lot of people in a scene - a lot of choreography and things can go wrong. In terms of props and special effects, the more there are, the more things can go wrong - but the challenge of getting it all working is a buzz.

What have been your favourite block of episodes to work on, and why?
I've directed so many episodes over the years, I really can't pick one block from another. Every block has it's own rewards and frustrations. Madge's funeral was satisfying visually.

Who do you most enjoy working with - both currently and in the past - on the show?
That's hard to answer as well. I had a great relationship with Sue Jones (Pam), Peta Brady (Cody) and Todd MacDonald (Darren). I love working with Jackie Woodburne (Susan) and Alan Fletcher (Karl), and Ian Smith (Harold). Caroline Gillmer (Cheryl) was great to work with, and of course Anne Haddy (Helen). It's fun working with Ryan Moloney (Toadie) - I've seen him grow from a 16-year-old to a young man. Also, Benjie McNair (Mal) - there's too many to mention - it's probably more to the point that there haven't been too many cast that I haven't enjoyed working with - they're usually hard working and professional and want to do good work.

Having worked on several other television productions such as A Country Practice, Shortland Street and Something in the Air, how does Neighbours compare? What are the similarities and are there any major differences?
The essence of the each show is different - different levels of drama. Neighbours is more light and fluffy in terms of style, than the other shows you have mentioned, but still has it's own sense of drama.

Have you come across any of the same actors in the various television shows you have directed?
I'm sure I have but I can't remember off the top of my head. Once an actor has had a main role on an on-going drama series, they are unlikely to be cast in another show, because they are identified too strongly with the other show.

Are there any Neighbours characters you particularly enjoy directing?
I love directing Dr. Karl because he is such a dag and gets so irritated and self-righteous - Alan may not agree with me! I enjoyed directing the Darcy character because he was so bad - bad characters are fun. The younger characters tend to be more straight forward, and I enjoyed working with the actors in those cases, to work at creating a character.

How does the show ensure directorial consistency?
TV is a producers medium. Directors work to a producers brief and producers choose directors who they know can reflect the style of the pre-existing show.

Recently, you directed the block of episodes that featured Dee's grandmother's house in Tasmania. The location shots were some of the most effective we've seen on the show in recent times - were they actually shot in Tasmania?
No, if only. I've shot desert scenes for other shows in a disused quarry in Cranboure, and a tropical jungle at Warneet!! The camera is a great liar. The shoot at Dee's grandmother's house was helped by the weather changing in the middle of the day and rain bucketing down!!

Neighbours has recently welcomed a new executive producer, Riccardo Pellizzeri. What direction do you see the show taking under his control?
The last time I directed, Ric had just come onto the show and was observing more than anything else, so he hadn't started putting his stamp on the show.

What do you think accounts for the huge success Neighbours has enjoyed over the last 18 years?
That's the million-dollar question. I think there's an element that makes a show successful that is indefinable - if you could articulate it, everyone could do it. It's a whole combination of scripts, story, cast, visual style being in sync with what the audience wants at the time. Sometimes, as in the case of Neighbours, it all comes together and then builds. There's hardly an adult in Australia now that did not spend some of their teenage life following the antics at Ramsay Street.

Interview by Moe. Added on 2nd August 2003